Syracuse residents rip developer, county IDA, proposed Inner Harbor tax breaks
About 75 people crammed into a small meeting room for an Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency public hearing on proposed tax breaks for COR Development Co. at the Syracuse Inner Harbor, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. A few dozen people lined the hallways outside the room, unable to squeeze in. (Tim Knauss)Reddit
More than two dozen speakers today loudly condemned a developer's request for tax breaks on the $324 million development of Syracuse's Inner Harbor, saying they did not believe the community would benefit.
Roughly 75 people stood shoulder to shoulder in a conference room meant for one-third as many, and several dozen more people lined up in the hall, during the public hearing.
Speaker after speaker accused COR Development of "forum shopping'' to get the best deal on tax exemptions without making significant commitments to hire city residents or provide other public benefits. No one spoke in favor of the proposed 15-year payment in lieu of taxes.
Members of the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency – none of whom attended the hearing, in keeping with normal practice – could vote on the deal as soon as Dec. 8.
Several speakers criticized COR for applying for benefits from OCIDA rather than the Syracuse Industrial Development Agency, which normally handles development projects within city limits. PILOTs granted by the Syracuse IDA are voted on by the Syracuse Common Council before they become final, but OCIDA faces no such legislative review.
"COR has decided they want to go shopping,'' said the Rev. Earl Arnold, a retired pastor from East Syracuse. "I guess it's Christmas season and they want to look for the bargains.''
Other speakers emphasized the need for guaranteed community benefits, including local jobs, if COR is to receive a public subsidy. Several times, the crowd broke into a loud chant: "We need jobs.''
Julie Cerio, the county economic development director, presided over the meeting. She declined to answer questions afterward.
OCIDA board members are expected to review the comments before they vote on the deal.
Syracuse City Auditor Marty Masterpole said it was "inexcusable'' for OCIDA members to skip the hearing, echoing the comments of several speakers. Masterpole urged OCIDA to voluntarily submit the deal to a vote of the Syracuse city council, similar to what the agency did for town and school boards when it approved a PILOT for the Township 5 development in suburban Camillus.
Sharon Owens, CEO of Syracuse Model Neighborhood Facility, said she warned county officials a week ago to find a larger room for the meeting because of high public interest, to no avail. Owens said the absence of OCIDA board members made her "question the sincerity'' of holding a public hearing.
"Remember this day,'' Owens said. "It has an ominous feeling. There is a sinking feeling in my gut to watch our community devouring itself from the inside out -- again! -- in response to the manoeuvers of yet another developer.''
COR is seeking to make reduced payments in lieu of taxes for 15 years, the value of which has not been estimated. The company also is asking for an exemption from sales taxes, valued at $12.9 million, on construction materials, and an exemption, valued at $2.9 million, from the state mortgage recording tax. Property tax exemptions would far exceed the value of the sales tax and mortgage recording tax exemptions.
The mortgage tax is a source of funding for Centro, whose public bus system has struggled financially, said Deborah Hundley, president of Providence Services of Syracuse, a nonprofit that helps low-income people find rides to work. Further cuts to Centro would hurt people who are looking for work, she said.
"I'm actually begging that this organization will not take this money from the people in the city who want to get jobs,'' Hundley said.
COR was selected by Syracuse officials in 2012 from among three competitors to develop former state land around the Inner Harbor. City officials acquired the land from the state and sold it to COR at a nominal price,
The Syracuse Industrial Development Agency negotiated the land transfer to COR, conducted the environmental review of the Inner Harbor project, and provided financial assistance for the first building, an Aloft Hotel. But COR went to OCIDA to seek a PILOT for the rest of the development, which spans 32 acres.
Syracuse Common Councilor Khalid Bey attended the hearing intending to criticize OCIDA for handling the PILOT request rather than deferring to SIDA. But after seeing the number of people lined up to speak, Bey waited out in the hallway to make room for others, he said.